Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
There’s a dating app out there – not that I’m looking, I just watched a satirical video on it – but there’s a dating website out there called “The League” and it was built as a place where high-powered, successful young people can form relationships with other high-powered, successful young people, and to do that, they screen their clientele closely. Hiding behind words like “well-balanced community” and “high quality content” they weed out people that aren’t pretty, don’t have the education, or don’t make the money that fits their profile. You have to apply for membership and then they’ll rate your profile photos, your interests and hobbies, your lifestyle by their standards, whether that sits well with us or not. And then they can invite some in and exclude others out.
Today we honor graduates of our high school for what they’ve done. They’ve taken the tests. They’ve written their papers and completed a four-year long journey. But we also honor them for their future. For some that includes applications to schools, for others that includes taking the ACT’s, others the SAT’s, and for many it includes writing essays promoting yourself – which is a very awkward thing to have to do – or putting on a shirt and tie for an interview, or generally learning how to talk yourself up.
And for the biggest universities, they have a set of profile characteristics they’re looking for. They hide behind words like “well-balanced community” and “high quality education” so that you apply and they rate your interests and hobbies, your lifestyle by their standards, whether that sits well with us or not. And then they can invite some in and exclude others out.
During vicarage, I happened to be part of a men’s basketball night on Mondays from 7-9:30 or so and through the year more guys started coming until we would play full-court, then two 4 on 4 half-court games, then even more. But the problem was, the growth we had was mostly high schoolers, and they were fast. The more that joined us, the faster the game went and the more the older guys weren’t able to play. So, the men took a look at their growth and had a choice – either they minister to the younger ones that were already coming or they could exclude them and keep their exercise. And whether or not it sat well with me, they used their standards to invite some in and exclude others out.
The point of our meditation today is to think on the subject of worthiness. What makes a man worthy? Or, in other words, when do you deserve something? Three places of meditation from the three pieces of dialog from our text.
The Jews had their own thoughts in our text. In Luke they come up to Jesus looking to do some good for a man who did some good for them. They come up to Jesus and say, “Look at this good man. He underwrote our synagogue. He loves our people. He cares for the health of his servant, and more than that he loves his servant. By our standards, he passes muster. By our standards, he’s worthy to be helped. He’s helped us and now we should help him.”
One commentator notes the language they use – it’s used in other ancient documents – the formula “He is worthy for he loves our nation” is the language of the Roman system of patrons. Unlike previous empires, Roman governors and centurions built goodwill with the peoples they conquered by funding projects and encouraging city life. They would befriend and reinforce local systems of governance. The centurion sent for the Jewish leaders and the Jewish leaders were obligated to their patron to go to Jesus. They worked through the system. They worked in ways appropriate to their social and political system to help the person who, by their standards, was worthy of help.
We work within our systems. We work within our policies. We work within the standards that we’ve made in this world in order to do what the standards allow us to do to the best of our abilities. We live in a democratic republic where you can voice your opinion by exercising your right to vote. You can voice your opinion through protest. You can voice your opinion through the system. That’s what the Jewish elders are doing. They’re trusting the system to work in the way it was designed to work. He scratched our back, we’ll scratch his.
And Jesus goes along with them. In this particular story, it’s surprising – now pick this up – it’s surprising to think that Jesus doesn’t have one of his funny prickly little conversations with these folk. You think of how he answers the rich young ruler’s question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? – Who do you call good? God alone is good!” But he doesn’t do that here… he goes along with them.
But notice the second thing that happens. As Jesus goes with them, it isn’t the centurion that comes to meet them on the road – we NEVER see him in this story -- , nor is it his servants. It’s his friends. Now, we don’t know if his friends were Jewish or not but what we do know is that they came bearing a message from the man himself.
And he says pretty much the opposite of what the Jewish elders said. I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. I am not even worthy to meet with you. I am definitely not worthy to ask you to heal my servant.
What that means is, I have no claim to get you to come. I know that I look worthy by the world’s standards, but I am absolutely unworthy. I have no ace-in-the-hole to force you to do anything. I have no chips coming up to the poker table. I’m asking only out of the bottom of my desperate need.
But, he says, nevertheless, you have the power to do what you will do. I am a man who has authority, therefore I know if you use your authority, it will be done.
And then Jesus answers. But he doesn’t answer the friends. He turns and addresses the crowd. You can picture him in your mind turning his back on the messengers and looking to the crowd before saying, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” In this phrase, he says two things: First he says that the centurion is right – that he isn’t worthy. Second, he says that the centurion is wrong – that Jesus has declared him worthy. What kinds of words are these?
Well, they are words that follow the pattern of our Christ. You see there are two truths that come evident in our text for today and the first is that God has standards and they are incredibly high. Matthew chapter 5: Jesus did not come to abolish the law. He came to reveal it fully. He laid out the policies and procedures of God in the electronic drop-box of the 1st century. Our God is a god of order, and that order stands even when we don’t stack up. God knows, and he knows even better than you, all your failures, all your regrets, every time you fall short and don’t live up to his standards. It’s not a secret to him, and it never was.
And his laws are absolute. They stand apart as the way that any human who is a human is supposed to live. There are no exceptions. Every time we fall short, we fall short of being human.
But at the same time, Jesus has come to redeem sinners. He didn’t come to redeem the righteous; he came to redeem sinners. Only the sick need a doctor, and we’ve got the best doctor around. Only those who acknowledge their own unworthiness can see how incredible the gift of God in the courtroom of justice is. You don’t get what you deserve. You hear the gavel come down and the judge says “Not guilty.” You walk out of the courtroom saved by grace given to you in your desperate need.
Or to say it in another way, to paraphrase John Piper for our lives, there are two ways to live without the naked shame of Adam and Eve. First is to be absolutely perfect in every way – to have nothing to be ashamed about – and that way left us ever since the Garden of Eden. But the second is to let forgiveness and mercy flow over all shame and imperfection.
The unworthy are declared worthy and so they become worthy.
Two lessons from our text today: the first is to know the rules, the policies, the procedures and the standards of the world. The second is to remember that Jesus crossed those lines whenever it was for the good of the kingdom of God. Look through the Gospels and you’ll see a Jesus that sometimes followed social convention, sometimes didn’t. Sometimes he showed up where and when custom would allow him and sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he honored the Sabbath customs because they glorified God, and sometimes he spoke as the Lord of the Sabbath, healing the lame and making them take up their mats and walk.
The Gospel not only saves our sorry souls by declaring us forgiven children of God; it redeems the physical, the social, the business, and the political realities of our everyday lives. As one commentator puts it, “Jesus… has the authority to heal, even from a distance, and even when that distance is measured as much in [religious and cultural] terms as in meters or yards… the healing power of Jesus overcome[s social and religious] barriers.” It privileges our fellow human’s walk of faith above social niceties.
It calls us to love when society would challenge us to hate. It calls us to speak strongly when society would beg us to whisper. It calls us to call people out for their sin even as we keep on loving them.
The kingdom of God is like a man who after years of marriage, is just starting to realize how unworthy of his wife he really is. He comes to the Lord’s Supper and remembers how unworthy of his Lord’s Body and blood he really is. He hears the words of forgiveness and realizes just how much he needed to hear those words. And yet, it doesn’t paralyze him or shame him, because it allows him to rest all the more in the incredible grace that takes the unworthy and makes them worthy in Christ himself. Amen and Amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther